One lesson Jin Kim Montclare took from her training as a AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellow is the need to connect with people over commonalities. “Even with all this information, people do not necessarily act on evidence to make policies, for example. I can make the most eloquent argument, and it’s still hard to convince people. A lot of it is trying to figure out ways to say, ‘You and I are the same. We are no different from each other.’”
This was the central challenge Montclare grappled with while writing an op-ed calling for trust in science during the COVID-19 pandemic, which she recently submitted. Her submission was the culmination of her participation in a four-day course led by The Op-Ed Project (held virtually because of the public health crisis). The Op-Ed Project aims to increase the number of op-eds written by women and minorities. Montclare helped organize this session, as part of her Leshner fellowship year, for her female and underrepresented minority colleagues, staff, and postdoctoral researchers at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, where she is a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.
During the op-ed training, they did exercises to overcome their own biases. Montclare noted that the majority of the voices and perspectives in the media are white men. “Many of us who are women tend to think we aren’t experts,” Montclare acknowledged. “Oh yes, I have a Ph.D. and do all this stuff, and yet I don’t think I am an expert… so we don’t think we should be writing and putting our opinion out there.” But after the op-ed training, she sees herself as more of a resource and wants to offer what she can to help others.
The op-ed workshop was partly an outgrowth of Montclare’s other efforts to bring together the community of female and underrepresented minority engineers at her school, particularly around discussions of sexual harassment in STEM fields. She considers this a major impediment to retaining these groups in STEM and organized an event at her school in September 2019 to talk about it. She invited the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) to send someone from their committee on sexual harassment – and so Beth Hillman, president of Mills College, joined. This also led to Montclare’s participation in the NASEM Action Collaborative Summit on the same topic.
Another major effort Montclare began during her year as a Leshner Fellow was starting her lab’s blog. She had always wanted to write a blog, but didn’t want to be the only one contributing. So she has involved all her students (summer high school interns, undergraduates, and graduate students) and post-docs in writing for it, and asked that they also join Twitter to share their posts. They were excited about it, but their posts slowed down as they got busy. Now because of the pandemic, many of the students have had more time to write again.
Before starting the blog, she discussed it with her colleagues and AAAS staff during orientation week and had a follow-up meeting with AAAS staff member and social media lead, Gemima Philippe. Philippe encouraged Montclare to consider her goals for blogging and suggested focusing the blog not just on the lab’s scientific research, but on the scientists themselves. Taking this advice, Montclare has encouraged the students to write about anything they are passionate about, which helps to humanize scientists and illuminate the processes of science. “It has really engaged them and is eye-opening to them… They think they’re just doing research. But an important part of research is being able to communicate it.”
Montclare says she thought her students wouldn’t “like me for making them write even more.” Yet one student who wrote about the experience of being a first-generation STEM student found that writing the blog inspired him to get more engaged in other ways. He started participating in a group of “male allies for women in STEM,” and wants to write an op-ed.
Montclare’s year as a fellow has included a recent shift toward the unexpected: with the COVID-19 pandemic closing schools, she has started developing chemistry lessons for her daughter’s elementary school. She wrote about this on the AAAS Public Engagement Reflections Blog – and has continued to expand her lesson offerings.
Montclare has discovered that doing public engagement is a lot like doing science: “It’s an ongoing experiment. It doesn’t always work, but you learn from it,” she says.
The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to 10-15 mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society.